Dr. Marilyn Salas has worn multiple hats in the world of education in Guam, but now she’s on a different mission – to empower our island’s community to create a more sustainable and food secure island. Dr. Salas is a proud founding member of the Pacific Farmers Together Cooperative (PFTC), a women-driven cooperative that emphasizes and encourages natural farm systems, aids local farmers sell their produce at I Metkao in Hagatna, increases accessibility of nutritious local foods, and shares knowledge and expertise on sustainable agriculture.
Dr. Salas comes from families of farmers. Before World War II, her elders cultivated a lånchu in Piti. Their land was located where the Veteran’s Cemetery is now, and extended across the highway to the oceanside. Once the military annexed their land, however, their family moved to her Mother’s land in Agaña Heights where they continued to grow their own food, including cows and pigs, despite the rules and regulations associated with postwar urban growth. “The children were raised and fed on produce from the land,” Dr. Salas said. “From a young age, the love of nature, the respect for nature, was instilled in us.”
Today, Dr. Salas’ family cultivates an agroforestry farm in Humåtak. She and her family propagate several varieties of bananas, citrus trees, coconuts and other native crops to share with their families, and sell when there is an abundance. But Dr. Salas also sees the farm as a place-of-learning, where others can become inspired to grow their own food in a way that is culturally relevant and attuned to Guam’s unique tropical environment and landscape.
Comparing Guam to surrounding islands in the Pacific where indigenous foods remain staples of local diets, Dr. Salas says that Guam has moved in a direction that is both environmentally and culturally unsustainable. The rapid changes in the island’s society over the last seventy-years has filtered into our local diets. Once dependent on crops such as breadfruit, yams, mangos, and local bananas, Guam has noticeably shifted in diet preference to imported foods, rice, potatoes, apples, and bananas from Mexico and South America. Notably, Dr. Salas observed that the schools shift towards imported foods led to decline in children’s appetite for foods that sustained Chamoru people for thousands of years.
But all is not lost. Dr. Salas is optimistic about Guam’s ability to reclaim and reinvigorate the island’s food system. “We focus on economic growth and cash-crops, and we forgot about the whole reason of family and sharing and caring and giving.” Dr. Salas emphasizes agriculture and farming based on inafa’maolek, trading produce and seeds so that the whole island can work together towards food security. “If Humatak gets hit so bad by a typhoon and you have seedlings somewhere else, you can go to them [other local farmers] and ask for seedlings to plant back in.”
Dr. Salas is inspired by her family and friends who are from Chuuk, Ulitihi and other Micronesian Islands. She reiterates that Guam can learn so much by looking to the islands around us to learn how to grow and propagate indigenous and local foods with sustainable methods such as natural composting and reintroduce and cook traditional foods such as breadfruit, taro, and sweet potatoes to incorporate into healthy, daily diets. The future of farming and food security for Guam, Dr. Salas notes, is the power of the backyard garden, where every family can grow staple crops for their family’s table.
At the center of this the sustainable future of the island’s agriculture lies in the hands of women and children in home gardens throughout the island. Dr. Salas reminded us that women were the traditional caretakers of the land, cultivating a diverse set of crops while men were the navigators, fishermen and toolmakers.
Children and the younger generations, especially those with a connection to the land, will be the ones to “inherit the tools of the land” and move the island forward to sustainable alternative futures by reclaiming indigenous pasts.